Translation: In the delta
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Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Today we’re starting in Argentina, in the delta of the Paraná river. More specifically, in a city called Tigre. It’s in the province of Buenos Aires, just 50 minutes from the capital.
It’s an escape to a green oasis, the complete opposite to the noise and stress of the city.
But Tigre is going through a major transformation. At the center of this serenity there’s tension between two communities with different visions: some want urban development, and others don’t.
But that’s not all: nature also has its owns plans.
Our producer Gilda Di Carli went to Tigre and met Martín Nunziata, an islander. He lives on the river, in a house raised on stilts to protect it from the water and the rising tide. Martín is also an environmentalist, and his goal is to save the delta.
[Gilda Di Carli, producer]:: He’s in his seventies, with grey hair. And he has crows feet —those wrinkles in the corners of people’s eyes— which are most noticeable when he laughs. He jokes a lot as we travel through the delta, that place with so much history.
And Martín owes his life to all this nature. This place was his refuge during the military dictatorship. In the 60s, Martín was persecuted for his leftist ideology. He was looking for a place to start a new life, in the middle of a political crisis, with Viviana, the love of his life, and their three young children. His daughter, Yanina, the youngest, needed a lot of medical attention. She suffers from spina bifida and has had more than 10 surgeries.
[Martín Nunziata]: That’s how it was. We had the children who were very small —Yanina had just had her surgery—, we were very sad because both of us were unemployed, and we were in a tiny boat. We got in the river with absolutely no idea how to steer a boat or anything like that. In that moment of desperation we said, “we want to live here,”
[Gilda]: Martín and his family were pioneers. They bought a house and moved to a place that was practically desolate.
[Martín]: There was no one there. You could walk around the delta naked [laughs]. That’s how few people there were.
[Gilda]: And even though Martín grew up in the city, he felt an immediate connection to the region. To the flora: the willows, the ceibo trees, the epiphytes, the acacias…the greenery in the delta.
[Martín]: The first thing to catch my eye was that green hitting my retina and when I go out to the city…it’s not there.
[Gilda]: And it is a very beautiful place, I don’t know how to explain it. It was so beautiful that Martín kept a painting of the landscape on the wall at home, but one day he said:
[Martín]: Why do I have a painting when I have the real thing out there? I grabbed a saw and sawed a hole in the wall. I bought a pane of glass and then I had a window looking out on real trees.
[Gilda]: Martín and his family lived there in peace for more than 20 years, but toward the beginning of the 90s something started to change…
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[Narrator]: Tigre is the fastest growing municipality in Argentina. Its population is growing, its business are growing, its stores, its offerings in terms of cuisine, recreation and tourism. Investment is growing…
[Gilda]: The delta began transforming, little by little, from a uninhabited area, almost like a ecological reserve, to a tourist spot for residents of Buenos Aires.
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[Narrator]: If you don’t know about Tigre, come find out. If you already know about it, come see how it has grown And if you’re looking to make an excellent, surefire investment…
[Gilda]: People with money start to buy vacation houses.
So now we’re coming up on Miami?
[Martín]: [Laughs] You laugh but there was a sign in one of those videos that we made that said: ”Just like Miami” and it was this development. I don’t know if the sign is still there. We’ll see if we move up a little.
[Gilda]: We’re going to Tigre to try to understand what’s happened, why, and what impact so much development can have on such a fragile location.
And here we are in front of some structures that you wouldn’t have seen along the river 20 years ago: tall modern buildings with enormous windows, each with a pool and dozens of palm trees lining the bank of the river. This kind of development is known as a country, a word borrowed from English. They’re closed, barred-off neighborhoods with private entrances and their own security. And there are nearly one hundred of these in the municipality of Tigre. And we’re not talking about a large area. The countries make up about 40% of city’s land and more and more are popping up.
This one in particular is called Marina Golf. There’s a very tall security fence on the outside.
[Martín]: Looks at the wire! Look at how high up that wire goes! It’s at least…
[Gilda]: We soon realize that while we’re looking at this country from the boat, from inside the country they’re looking back at us.
[Martín]: The camera went crazy. Did you see how it turned? Because they’re in a monitoring center where they have that and they saw that there’s a boat so the camera is going nuts out here. Did you see? It’s really…really incredible to see these things.
[Gilda]: And so you understand the contrast, 5 minutes away by boat, there’s another kind of development, another kind of community. One that’s much less elegant than Marinas Golf or any other country. Martín takes me there.
[Martín]: We go down the San Fernando canal, here. You’ll see Villa Garrote on your right.
[Gilda]: 800 families live in Garrote in houses made of sheets of metal, bricks, and planks of wood. In Argentina this is what’s known as a villa, only this one is on the riverbank.
Garrote is around 60 years old. And now it has these new neighbors. We approach in the boat. There is a wall on the side of the river. It’s covered in graffiti and it’s falling to pieces.
The bank of the river is in disarray: there are no palms trees or new docks. Instead you can see some plastic bottles, some junk and even an abandoned car.
[Martín]: You’ll see all the trash there is in the river and that has to do with the lack of attention the city is paying to it. Because they don’t have trash collection, they don’t have water, they don’t have anything and look at what happens. Look at the coast.
[Gilda]: There’s a joke they told me to understand the situation in Tigre. They said: “Here there are two kinds of neighborhoods: On one hand you have placed like Marinas Gold, or whatever country which are private, and then you have others that are in privation: deprived of drinkable water, basic services etc.”
It cruel, but it’s the truth.
[Martín]: Let make this clear: if I turn around suddenly it’s because more than once they’ve thrown rocks at us, they don’t like it when we film them.
[Marcela Creciente]: There’s nothing going on here, man! Don’t be scared! [Laughs] They’re not cops!
[Gilda]: Now we’re in Garrote and this is our guide: Marcela Creciente.
[Marcela]: What am I going to do? [Laughs] I’m being interviewed.
[Gilda]: She’s a small woman with a lot of spark. She sounds almost like a child, but Marcela is in her forties and she is the mother of two children. In recent years she’s become a leader in the community.
Everyone knows her.
We come across a few teenagers sitting against a wall watching a football match. One of them, Uriel, tells me to be careful.
[Uriel]: I would tell you to take care, be careful. Because it’s really dangerous here. Since the police don’t come here, it’s a no man’s land.
[Gilda]: A neighborhood deprived of police protection. No man’s land. Negligence on the part of the State can be seen all over. There’s trash in all of the neighborhood’s streets. And Marcela says that the drainpipe is…
[Marcela]: A sewer. When it rains, it fills with water. When it floods, it’s worse. This whole drainpipe turns into… All of this crap: poop, piss…
[Gilda]: Garrote is next to the Luján river in a low area, in constant danger of flooding with every tide or heavy rain. And it’s especially bad in the summer when it rains more.
According to what Marcela tells me, everytime this happens, Garrote is paralyzed and the neighbors look for any way they can escape.
[Marcela]: The water is freezing. I move everything up. I tie the bed to the roof and I lift up the mattresses. You have to move everything up or everything you have will be ruined. Your furniture, since you move it up and down so much because of the water, gets ruined.
[Gilda]: It’s a matter of logistics, a matter of safety.
[Marcela]: When they were young we put them on the upper part of a pullout bed. We would climb the mattresses and put them on top. And we, the adults, would stay in the water.
[Gilda]: Marcela says that the municipality doesn’t help at all.
[Marcela]: They don’t come here to Garrote. And then they come, when everything is over, to bring one jug of lavandina… One lavandina and some mineral water.
[Gilda]: Lavandina is called “bleach” in other countries. Which they use to clean their houses and clothes and get the grime that’s left behind after every flood.
[Marcela]: Because we’re poor, but we’re not dirty. They think we’re dirty because they bring one lavandina four days later. You already have pimples down to your… I don’t want to say where [laughs].
[Gilda]: The lack of basic services and these periodic floods result in sanitation problems. Garrote came to a critical point in June 2012 when there was a parasite epidemic.
[Marcela]: The children were vomiting parasites from their mouths.
[Gilda]: After the Luján river was dredged, Marcela says that there were huge mounds of rotten muck on the bank of the Garrote side of the river.
[Marcela]: All of that rot was there. And it rained and it turned into mud right away. And it spilled into the streets, which were also dirt roads. And…the children suffered even more. Allergies, spots…
[Gilda]: One newspaper reported that parasites the size of large earthworms were found in children’s diapers. A woman who was 7 months pregnant also had parasites. What makes the situation even more frustrating for Marcela and her neighbors is that the new real estate developments have all of the services that Garrote has never had.
[Marcela]: In the end no one sees this place, so why would they make it better?
[Gilda]: What she means is that communities like Garrote are invisible. Literally. You can’t see them from the river or from the city center. But they’re also invisible to politicians.
Given that fact, her question made sense to me. So I went to Buenos Aires to see.
[Daniel]: When we return, Gilda goes to Buenos Aires to try to understand the legal and scientific context of development in Garrote.
We’ll see that Garrote is not a unique case…
[Terry Gross, Fresh Air host]: This is Terry Gross, host of Fresh Air. In my new interview with Hillary Clinton, I asked for her reaction when Donald Trump said this about her showing up slightly late after a commercial break in a debate.
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[Donald Trump]: I know where she went! Is discusting…
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[Daniel]: We are back with Radio Ambulante, I’m Daniel Alarcón. Gilda Di Carli continues this story.
[Eduardo Reese]: My name is Eduardo Reese. I’m an architect and director in area of Economic and Social Rights at CELS.
[Santiago Sánchez]: [Laughs] My name is Santiago Sánchez. I’m a lawyer for the Social, Economic and Cultural Rights team at CELS.
[Gilda]: We’ll, jokes aside, Eduardo and Santiago’s work is very serious.
They both work for CELS, The Center for Legal and Social Studies. I met with them at a conference room at their offices in San Telmo, an old neighborhood in Buenos Aires. It was an oppressively hot, stifling day and they were drinking hot mate.
For Eduardo and Santiago, there’s a simple explanation of what’s going on in Garrote. This is Eduardo.
[Eduardo]: These things are at risk of seeming like a crime story. “Oh the villa in Buenos Aires, the floods, the poor people,” whatever.
[Gilda]: Since August 2014, the CELS has represented families in Garrote in three court cases. Two against the city of Tigre for the lack of basic services and another against TGLT, the company behind a new development in Tigre: Venice. It’s fewer than two kilometers away from Garrote. This is Santiago.
[Santiago]: Within a few meters there’s a State that does everything possible to put a luxury development in place for people with high incomes, and the same State is doing everything possible to make people with more…with fewer resources live worse lives and is trying to kick them out. They’re the same tools: they give one side everything and they give the other side everything to make them leave, so that things go badly for them…
[Gilda]: According to CELS, the State has not upheld the law with either group. For the residents of Garrote…
[Santiago]: They don’t give them basic city services. And they aren’t obeying the law with Venice either in the time and manner in which they’re giving them permits. It’s the same State, the same actions.
[Gilda]: The clearest example of how the authorities are turning a blind eye is the construction permits. In the case of Venice, TGLT announced that more than half of the apartments were already sold before they even had the authorization to begin construction. This is Eduardo:
[Eduardo]: When I argue this they tell me “no, that’s not corruption.” No, this is the normalization of privilege. TGLT has absolutely normalized the idea that it can do whatever it wants because it’s TGLT.
[Gilda]: TGLT obviously sees things differently. From their point of view, Garrote’s complaints have nothing to do with them.
[Pablo Botana]: I don’t understand the Garrote-Venice case, uh, from your question.
There’s no… I don’t know what Garrote-Venice case you’re talking about. I don’t understand.
[Gilda]: This is Pablo Botana, the project manager. I met with him in Venice’s showroom.
[Pablo]: Some people from Garrote have made a kind of presentation in other courts demanding infrastructure from the city: sewers, drainage for rainwater. Well that’s another matter. No… We were mentioned there but that didn’t affect us at all and it’s following its own course.
[Gilda]: In advertising, Venice bills itself as a sailable city. Imagine it: modern buildings, enormous windows, all very open. But instead of streets uniting the neighborhood, there are canals. Docks for the residents to park their yachts. In some cases, right in front of the door to the house. Lots of green space. Walkways, lots of trees…
Botana shows me the model.
[Pablo]: Here you have the apartments that are smaller but have really beautiful views…
[Gilda]: And he’s right, it looks really beautiful.
[Pablo]: All of the apartments in this project look out over the water. All of them.
[Gilda]: And that visual connection to the environment, to the delta, is what attracts people. It’s a relaxing panorama. Especially if you come from a city that’s as intense as Buenos Aires.
[Pablo]: The delta here is something, uh, one-of-a-kind.
[Gilda]: Botana describes the profile of a potential customer to me, someone who would be interested in buying or investing in Venice.
[Pablo]: Basically people who would enjoy a life that’s more healthy and natural. You have a mix of everything. You have a mix of…the young couple who want their first apartment to the person who wants to have their own boat. In other words… we cover practically the whole spectrum of potential home owners.
[Gilda]: Meaning, the whole spectrum of people who can pay at least 14 thousand dollars per square meter.
Botana also tells me how Venice is different from other countries because it’s not built on virgin land. Previously there had been a very important shipyard on that very lot.
[Pablo]: These are the cement blocks where there were large…large industrial ships. To build the boats.
[Gilda]: OK, so the land is already prepared for…for this. Or did you have to modify it?
[Pablo]: No. You have to make modifications. You have to make adjustments to the ground…
[Gilda]: To open canals for example. And any change affects the ecology, the flow of the water.
But according to Botana, any change that the developers may have made, has not affected neighborhoods like Garrote at all.
[Pablo]: They’re characteristic of the region. And uh… outside of here, there’s no… there no direct effect between one and another. The problem is that those areas always flooded.
[Gilda]: It’s true that there had been floods in Garrote before they started building these gated communities. But in recent years they have become more frequent and destructive. And not just in Garrote. In other similar neighborhoods too.
And what is certain is that the floods have become a regional issue. In November of last year, two federal judges suspended all real estate construction until an environmental impact study was conducted.
But the day I visited Venice, everything was already in motion. I saw cranes, trucks, back-hoes…everything you would associate with ongoing construction. It seems like TGLT modified some plans and got a provincial agency to approve them. They even asked for a report and the conclusion was…
[Pablo]: It doesn’t influence the floods in adjacent areas.
[Gilda]: Even more, for Botana, everything looks great.
[Pablo]: I don’t think you can do better than this [laughs]. You’re looking at new urban development. You’re looking at health. You’re looking at the environment. On top of that, with this project, you’re looking at the future. You aren’t looking at the past.
[Jorge Codignotto]: We’re in a new era, we have information.
[Gilda]: This is Jorge Codignotto. A geologist and specialist in rising sea levels.
[Jorge]: And this information isn’t being used. It’s classified, but it’s not secret [laughs]. Curiously enough.
[Gilda]: Codignotto doesn’t see as rosy a future as Botana.
He’s been studying the ecology of the delta for more than 20 years. He’s a little like a grandfather, with his brown suit and thick glasses. One of those researchers who knows everything but isn’t at all pretentious. At the end of the interview he gave me a piece of candy. In any case, the information he’s referring to concerns the impact of climate change on Tigre. How the delta has changed in recent decades and how it will continue to change.
According to him, there are hard times ahead. And not just for the residents of Garrote but also for the whole region. Including the residents of new developments like Venice.
But let’s go back to the beginning. Why build here?
[Jorge]: Generally wetlands are seen as… plots of land that are generally considered no-good.
[Gilda]: In other words, they aren’t very valuable. Land that, at the time, was very cheap.
[Jorge]: You can’t walk there because you’d sink. You can’t drive a vehicle, not even a 4×4 would work. You can’t go by boat because it’s not deep enough.
[Gilda]: So this “mess of a place”, with its swampy terrain that floods and dries out, is raised so that developers can build over it.
[Jorge]: And there goes all of the flora and fauna, which is this fantastic biological resource.
[Gilda]: A wetland helps to regulate the water level of the river, protecting the region from floods. Every time they build, turning the wetlands into solid terrain, the risk increases. The people in Garrote are experiencing it already, in one way or another. But not just them. Other communities in the delta are as well.
And this is only going to get worse with climate change…
[Jorge]: In other words, what’s being invested in this land is being wasted.
[Gilda]: Or rather, it will be wasted. And if the State is discriminating between the rich and the poor in Tigre, climate change won’t.
The delta will cease to provide the unique benefits of being wetlands: producing oxygen, retaining carbon dioxide, regulating waterflow…those basic functions of a wetland. According to Codignotto, that is what needs to be preserved.
[Jorge]: We’re not suggesting doing nothing while you sit and watch the landscape, but rather, to make sure we don’t lose the few resources that we do have.
[Gilda]: The Tigre delta is trapped between the natural phenomenon of climate change and real estate development.
But the city of Tigre hasn’t taken the research conducted by Codignotto and other scientists into account.
[Jorge]: I published that work before the boom in occupancy began in the area, which hasn’t been analyzed. In other words, it’s done nothing. In reality it’s had little transcendence. I’m not going to walk through the streets selling an academic paper, or giving it away, let’s say.
[Gilda]: So there has been a kind of disconnect between the scientific community and the world of politics.
[Martín]: They’ve completely misinterpreted the role of the State which instead of being Robin Hood, ends up being a Hood Robin: working for the richest, you know?
[Gilda]: For Martín, who’s lived in the delta for nearly 40 years, the problem is the State.
[Martín]: I was saying all this was happening in a context in which there are these really stark contrasts in Tigre… of being this, kind of high-end progress right beside the most intense poverty where people don’t even have water, you know? It really is a shame.
[Gilda]: We move away from the security cameras and the countries and arrive at a lagoon. We shut off the motor. And look around in silence. Despite so many years here, the beauty of the delta continues to amaze him.
[Martín]: It’s fresh, you breathe differently here. You say “how would someone come and do so much harms to a place?”. That breaks your heart.
[Gilda]: For him, this is personal. This region took him in at the lowest point in his life. Nearing the end of our conversation Martín confessed one detail about all this to me. One detail that seemed even ironic to him. Even though he has fought so hard against excessive development in TIgre, his own son seems not to agree.
His son lives in a country.
[Daniel]: Gilda Di Carli is a freelance energy and environmental journalist. She lives in New York. Gilda would like to dedicate this story to Mateo.
This story was edited by Camila Segura, Silvia Viñas, and me. The sound design is by Andrés Azpiri.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante includes Desiree Bayonet, Jorge Caraballo, Barbara Sawhill, Ryan Sweikert, Luis Trelles, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas. Maytik Avirama is our editorial intern and Andrea Betanzos is the program coordinator. Carolina Guerrero is our CEO
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this story on our website: radioambulante.org. Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin American. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.